To look better in your clothes, get things altered. (How's that for a truly boring piece of style advice?) Stylists and fashionistas are always parroting it mechanically because it's true: Clothes that are tailored to fit the wearer are the main reason movie stars look like movie stars! But if you try to actually find someone to do those alterations, you’ll likely hit a brick wall. It was even hard for me to find my current alterations wizard, and I’ve been dressing people professionally for the past 20 years—lots of folks call themselves tailors, but that doesn’t always mean they're skilled.
The process of finding someone you like and trust with your clothes can be just as harrowing as online dating—sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs until you find your prince. But it isn't impossible: Here are seven tips for finding a tailor you'll love (and a quick terminology lesson to help you get the results you want).
1. Pick somebody nice.
I used to think tailors who were cantankerous and mean were somehow better at their jobs than everyone else, but I’ve since come to my senses and realized that I’m actually paying them for a service—and no bad, rude behavior will be accepted. You’re looking to form a long-term relationship with someone who will have your best interests at heart, so skip any tailor who gives you attitude in your initial meeting.
2. Look for a tailor who takes appointments.
This is a sign that they are willing to spend the time to really understand your body and your needs. Walk-in spots can be good in an emergency (like when the hem falls out of your suit pants), but being able to ask questions and have someone’s undivided attention will always equal a better finished product. Plus, if you book an appointment you might actually go.
Oh, the hem just fell out of your work pants? Keep a Micro-Stitch on hand for emergencies.
3. Seek recommendations.
Ask your Facebook pals, fashionable friends, and the sales clerk at your favorite boutique who they like. I’ve found the very best tailors by asking vintage resellers, as antique pieces tend to need a lot of needle-and-thread TLC.
4. Find someone who understands style.
A good tailor should be able to point out when what you're asking for defies the laws of physics. And they needn’t be Karl Lagerfeld, but a tailor who keeps up with current trends and styles is invaluable.
5. Make sure the tailor is available.
Good tailors are often booked far in advance—which means you may be out of luck when you find yourself in a jam the day before a wedding or important meeting. You want one who is accessible when you suddenly need them (even if that means a rush surcharge).
6. Examine their work.
I always take in an easy alteration (like a hem) when I’m trying out a tailor for the first time, and I’ll inspect it afterwards to make sure the work is up to snuff before giving them something delicate or precious. Make sure to look at both the outside and the inside of the garment. Check that everything lines up, thread ends are knotted, and seams are even.
7. Educate yourself.
Learn the terms for basic alterations. Knowing not just what you want, but also how to ask for it, is the best way to get the results you want. Here’s a quick list of terms for the most common alterations:
- Take in: If a dress, skirt, or pair of pants is too big in the waist, you’ll want to have the garment taken in. The max amount you’ll want a garment taken in is about three to four inches—otherwise you’ll risk winding up with an unbalanced result.
- Let out: Letting something out is perfect for when you just need an extra half-inch in order it to fit perfectly. However, you’ll need to make sure there is enough fabric to have the item let out in the first place! You’ll need at least a half-inch of fabric on either side of the seam for stability’s sake, as you can’t sew a garment right up to the edge of a seam (it’ll just rip).
- Add darts: Darts are folds sewn into fabric, most commonly used on women’s blouses at the bust line to help shape the figure. But darts are also quite useful to take in a skirt or pair of pants that gaps at the waist but fits well everywhere else.
- Bring up: Pant hems and blouse sleeves can easily be brought up a maximum of about three inches before things start to lose their shape. (One caveat: Blouses with buttons at the wrists can prove costly.)
- Taper: Tapering usually refers to the narrowing of a pant leg. A successful tapering job needs to run from hip to hem—not just from the knees down, unless you want a pair of suit trousers that look like genie pants.
- Repair: Tore a belt loop? Got a busted zipper? Lost a button? What you want here is a simple repair. (This is a good time to test out a tailor and ask lots of questions as outlined above.)
- Darn: Holes in sweaters and other knitted garments are repaired by darning (Eleanor Rigby’s specialty), which is the art of re-weaving small bits of matching yarn into the hole. You’ll likely search far and wide for a tailor who also does darning, as it’s increasingly becoming a lost art.
Alison Freer is a costume designer and the author of How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing.